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Fourth Line Adding More Than Toughness

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning
photo credit: Gregg Forwerck

Take some puck possession, agitation and energy, mix in some discipline and destruction, and you have the recipe for a productive fourth line.

The trio of center Zenon Konopka and wings Todd Fedoruk and Steve Downie provided all those things to the Lightning and much more through the successful three-game home-stand.

Fedoruk and Downie chipped in with big goals, the line drew at least five penalties against Carolina and Lightning Head Coach Rick Tocchet was confident to put them on the ice to help hold leads late.

“We’re extremely happy that we can contribute to the team and make a difference, game in and game out,” Konopka said. “It’s been a lot of fun and hopefully we can build on it.”

Building of a Fourth Line

Downie and Konopka played on the same line a lot last season with Norfolk in the American Hockey League. Fedoruk and Konopka have familiarity from their days with the Anaheim Ducks.

They all know what is required; they all know their roles are important on and off the ice.

“Those guys are really professional, even if they don’t get out there for periods of time,” Tocchet said. “I really respect them. They do a nice job keeping the guys on the bench alive.  I’ve got to get them more minutes. Those guys have done a good job for us.”

Lightning television and radio analyst Chris Dingman knows how important a dependable fourth line can be. He played on two units that won Stanley Cups.

Dingman said, after his first two series playing with Colorado in 2001, Ray Bourque went into coach Bob Hartley’s office and urged him to roll four lines. Hartley obliged and the Avalanche won it all.

“I think that was the real turning point for us,” Dingman said.

Setting Up Teammates

In 2004, Dingman teamed with Martin Cibak and Ben Clymer on the fourth line for the Lightning. The trio played more together as the playoffs went on as the Bolts took the Cup. It was Dingman who drew the power play which led to a 1-0 lead in Game 7 of the finals against Calgary.

Dingman said this Lightning fourth line is much improved over last season and can play an important role.

“Your top guys want to play the big minutes,” Dingman said. “If you have four lines, you can play Vinny [Lecavalier] and Marty [St. Louis] 20 minutes instead of 24 and those 20 minutes will be more quality minutes.”

And, they can play more quality power-play time. Downie, Fedoruk and Konopka all drew penalties against Carolina.

“That was big,” St. Louis said. “It’s a team game and you need everybody. They rose to the ocassion.”

Fedoruk, 30, acquired from Phoenix with David Hale for Radim Vrbata in the offseason, played his 500th career NHL game Monday and went over 1,000 penalty minutes earlier this season. He steamed down the right wing to score off a Victor Hedman pass to give the Lightning the lead against New Jersey Thursday in the home opener.

Tocchet said he likes the way Fedoruk, nicknamed Fridge, is skating and holding onto the puck. That type of play is earning him and his linemates key minutes.

“In today’s NHL, that fourth line has to be counted on,” Fedoruk said. “That’s something we take pride in. It’s a good feeling to have that confidence from your coach and be put out there in those situations.”

Adding Discipline To Their Game

Tocchet said during training camp that one of the keys for Downie was to show discipline on the ice. He did that throughout the home-stand. Downie dealt out clean, punishing hits, drew penalties and skated away. Then he scored on a nifty deflection to help beat Carolina. He did much of the same Monday against Florida, drawing two penalties. Downie also was on the second power-play unit.

“People don’t realize how good he is talent-wise,” Konopka said. “His stick-work is unbelievable.”

Fedoruk, Downie and Konopka are not shy to drop the gloves. They know they have to pick their spots though. Konopka said he confronted Carolina defenseman Jay Harrison Saturday after his elbow to Downie’s head, but was sure to wait until Harrison’s gloves came off to avoid an extra penalty, drawing a power play for the Lightning.

Konopka said it is nice to have a coach that understands the way his line plays.

“Tocch has given us guidance on what to do as a line and we’re on the same page,” Konopka said. “I’m a student of the game. I’ve always had a ton of penalty minutes, but I pride myself in not taking stupid penalties.”

Konopka has now played 44 NHL games for three different teams. The Lightning signed him to a two-year contract as a free agent before last season.

Puck Possession A Key To Success

Tocchet said the thing that he has learned about Konopka since the beginning of camp is how good he is on face-offs. Konopka is 67 percent (20-10) on draws overall and was over 83 (5-1) percent against Florida. Konopka was Face-Off Man of the Year in the Ontario Hockey League his final two seasons in Ottawa. When Chris Gratton, always solid on draws, came down to Norfolk last year he deferred to Konopka on big late-game draws.

“That gives you a lot of confidence,” Konopka said.

Konopka admits he came to camp with a broken foot last season. He also had hand surgery before camp with Anaheim in 2007. In 2006, he started the season in Russia. It’s been a while since he’s gone into the camp the way he did this season.

“He’s a guy you want on your fourth line,” Dingman said. “He’s hasn’t been in the NHL that much and will do anything to stay here.”

Konopka has grasped the opportunity.

“It’s awesome,” Konopka said. “I’m smiling every day I come to the rink.”

Lightning fans have enjoyed watching Konopka and his linemates as well.

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